Preachers should be simple with their words. We shouldn't make the mistake that simplicity robs words of power, depth or profoundness. Our number 3 is just reading a Michael Morpugo book called Cool. It's a very simple kids book – easy enough for our 8 year old to manage. It's well written and moving. As far as it can be said of secular writing, it has power – it grips, it paints pictures, it moves. This is interesting to me because the language is no more complex than the tales of Chip and Biff from the dreary Oxford Reading Tree (good for learning, I'm sure, but so, so boring). It reminded me that we don't need long words to convey deep thoughts. Simple words. Simple words. Simple words.
On the danger of stock pictures
Two good books. Shame about covers….
The insidious danger of the Insider Movement
The latest issue of Modern Reformation has landed on the office doorstep and there is a short, but excellent article on the Insider Movement:
Maybe you haven't heard but the most explosive issue in global missions within the evangelical church today is something called "insider movements." You aren't alone if you don't know anything about it, as most of the evangelical world in the West knew nothing of the movement until about the year 2000…
But as Bill Nikides points out this movement is both unbiblical and contrary to the fundamental doctrine of the church. If you're still not sure what it is, this is where people from other faiths become Christians but stay inside their faith organisations and systems – so here are some of the aliases you may have heard: "born again Islam, incarnational Jesus movements, Jesus Muslims, Messianic Muslims" and so on.
I've seen this movement in action in India, seen it decimating a church – perhaps you haven't come across it, but it's both dangerous and insidious.
I've had a few months of highs and lows – such times are common currency for most pastor-teachers. Highs and lows can be caused by all kinds of things – things said to us (or not), sermons going well (or not), church happy (or not), people being saved (or not) and so on. But I took time out this week to assess why the situations I'm in – what I perceive to be the causes of my highs and lows – cause such fluctuations in my own heart. Here's my answer.
I let them.
Or, to be more theologically precise, I let the circumstances I face and the words I take in shape me. My identity, in other words, comes from what people do to me, say to me, think of me. That's not only wrong, it's, frankly, supremely dangerous. More of that in a moment.
As I reflected on this, I realised that many pastor-teachers are in the same boat. We desperately want people to like our sermons for good reasons – we believe this is how they will be built up. We want our church's evangelism to be successful – this is how the church will grow. We want our ministry to be appreciated – this is how ministry for the long term will be maintained. Surely, all good? Ultimately, if these things click then Christ will be glorified, won't he?
Er, that's not quite the whole picture.
I spoke on Ezekiel this last week at a minister's meeting in South Wales. It was a happy time and I was reminded that in Ezekiel, everything is done for the sole purpose of ensuring people know that the Lord is the Lord. Judgement. Grace. Salvation. Wrath. Mercy. Exile. Discipline. Hard times. Good times – all with this one aim. And so, if my identity as a pastor-teacher comes from how "successful" ministry is in a worldly sense, I'm ignoring the thrust of books like Ezekiel. To base my identity on the wrong things is supremely risky. It takes me away from the Saviour who has redeemed me and made me his and makes me into an adherent of the prosperity gospel (though I would never admit to such a thing, of course).
No, it's absolutely critical that my identity comes from who I am as a believer. My identity is found in Christ. This is what I need to preach to myself every morning. Every afternoon. Every evening. This is what, ultimately, will stop the cycle of highs and lows and give me quiet confidence and assurance that I am and always will be beloved of the Father, in the Son, through the work of the Spirit.
Perhaps you need an identity check too?
A sermon on singing
I was on double duty last Sunday – preaching from Numbers 11-12 in the morning and then in the evening we had a different kind of evening where we thought as a church about singing. It was all based on Colossians 3.16-17:
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
I had three points (hoorah!) interspersed throughout the evening with songs that we sung together. We have a smaller congregation in the evening so it allowed us to work through some of the implications together.
1. Why do we sing?
Paul sees singing as having a vertical dimension ("Singing to God") and an horizontal one ("teach and admonish one another"). It is too simplistic to say that any particular song does one or the other. Often they do both. We tried a few experiments as to why singing serves that purpose -first of all everybody shouting out "Thank you God for……" Chaos. Then saying together, "Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee, how great thou art" – then finally singing that together. We thought through how what we sing teaches one another.
2. What do we sing?
It must follow that what we sing is of the utmost importance. We don't let anybody teach anything in the church – our preachers must preach the word of God. And we sing "the message of Christ." Three straightforward applications:
- content rules, not style – this is the other way around from the way most Christians think
- everyone takes part – we all exercise this ministry – no "sitting this one out"
- It can be good to modernise – we want a ministry of the word that is contemporary, i.e. understandable
Some good discussion on these points!
3. How do we sing?
Paul is clear – "with gratitude in your hearts to God." We thought through how we cultivated such an attitude.
A good evening. I hope it makes us value this ministry more.
Should we pray to the Spirit?
People often ask their pastor – "Is it right to pray to the Spirit?" I wonder – do you have an answer? Do you have a practice in your own prayer life? It is true – there are no prayers to the Spirit in the New Testament; but then, there are relatively few prayers in the New Testament full stop, so this does not necessarily answer the question. Before we are too quick to cut things off, we must always remember that the Holy Spirit is God himself and that as one of the three persons of the glorious God we worship, he is revealed in Scripture as having a certain role. It seems appropriate therefore, that when we are praying about the things that, as it were, are in his domain, it is not wrong to pray to the Spirit. Of course, the Spirit proceeds from the Father, so it is always possible to turn a prayer around from "Spirit, witness with my spirit….." to "Father, let your Spirit witness with my Spirit…." I tend to go for the latter – recognising the unique work of the Spirit, but appreciating that he acts for the Father.
What we want to avoid is our people's prayers (and ours) becoming Unitarian, as though God were just Father, just Jesus, or just Spirit. There's lots of praying like this which begins to cement false teaching if we don't gently correct it – for example, "Father, thank you for coming to die for us" may we a well meaning prayer but it is a confusion of the doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, I think, it behoves us to pray in a Trinitarian way publically. Here's a good example, from the well-known Valley of Vision.
Three in One, One in Three, God of my salvation, Heavenly Father, blessed Son, eternal Spirit, I adore thee as one Being, one Essence, one God in three distinct Persons, for bringing sinners to thy knowledge and thy kingdom.
O Father, thou hast loved me and sent Jesus to redeem me;
O Jesus, thou hast loved me and assumed my nature, shed thine own blood to wash away my sins, wrought righteousness to cover my unworthiness;
O Holy Spirit, thou hast loved me and entered my heart, implanted there eternal life, revealed to me the glories of Jesus.
Three Persons and one God, I bless and praise thee, for love so unmerited, so unspeakable, so wondrous, so mighty to save the lost and raise them to glory.
O Father, I thank thee that in fullness of grace thou hast given me Jesus, to be his sheep, his jewel, his portion;
O Jesus, I thank thee that in fullness of grace thou hast accepted, espoused, bound me;
O Holy Spirit, I thank thee that in fullness of grace thou has exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued by stubborn heart, made me one with him forever.
O Father, thou art enthroned to hear my prayers,
O Jesus, thy hand is outstretched to take my petitions,
O Holy Spirit, thou art willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply my words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication.
O Triune God, who commandeth the universe, thou hast commanded me to ask for these things that concern thy kingdom and my soul. Let me pray and live as one baptized into the threefold Name.
Review: am I called?
It's not often you come across a book and think to yourself, 'You know, I'm glad that's been written'. However, Am I Called by Dave Harvey is that kind of book. It's a book about that most difficult of subjects – the call to Christian ministry.
Here's what I like about it:
- the focus is right. It starts with God, the caller and salvation, the calling (in fact, the only way that word is used in the New Testament).
- The context is right. The second chapter is about the context in which ministry takes place, i.e. the local church. This is a much needed and much neglected emphasis.
- The balance is right. Taking the pastorals as the basis, Dave assesses ministry the way the Apostle assesses it.
- The priority is right. "There are a lot of things a pastor should be able to do, but there's clearly one thing he must be able to do to hold the office. He must be able to preach."
It's not a long book so it's digestible and accessible. I've got one or two minor gripes which are worth mentioning:
- the last chapter redeems the book from being very you-centred. Up to that point it seems to have been about self assessment. Dave redeems this by saying it's about local church assessment, but I wanted this clear chapter to come much earlier in the book to avoid it being a kind of "how do you score?" kind of approach. The middle chapters are all good in terms of content, but they are about "you"
- the author (unless I missed it) never really grapples with what Paul means by 'sets his heart upon' in 1 Tim 3.1. This is a key idea, I feel, getting to root of what a call is
- which leads to the other minor criticism. The call language is problematic, we all need to realise that. It's not immediately biblical (as Dave points out it is reserved for salvation in the New Testament). So it does need some exploration and explanation.
However, these are minor niggles in what is otherwise an excellent book to give to prospective young men or even to those already in ministry. I was reading it on a train travelling to Wales with Mr RC Lucas. He looked at it and said "that's a much needed book if it's any good. Is it?"
So, yet another book on the Trinity, or something fresh?
Something fresh, by which I don't mean something that is not orthodox, but a book on the Trinity that is both deep and accessible, theologically rich yet pastorally applied. Sam Allberry's new book on the Trinity, Connected, is well worth some of your English pounds (or US dollars). Here's why I really enjoyed it:
- it covers all the theological bases without becoming a theological text book. It would be very easy for an author to think "these are the things that I must cover; one chapter on this, one on that." No, this book works more logically than that. One section leads to another, one chapter leads to another.
- it maintains an awe and wonder at the doctrine of the Trinity. It is easy, in trying to make a book accessible, to dumb down the content. Not so here. Sam covers all the bases whilst avoiding the techno-babble. If this book does not move your heart to worship, then you are one cold fish!
- it makes the doctrine of the Trinity immensely practical, and I mean immensely. I don't know if you've ever stopped to think about this, but a doctrine which is only useful for completing college essays has almost certainly been either misunderstood or over-valued. So often, this is the case with the way the Trinity is presented. Not here. I love the way that page after page works through the truths Sam explains with warm pastoral application. Given the current climate, the section which works through Trinitarian implications for marriage, gender and sexuality is especially helpful.
"Often in Western culture, two people are only considered to be equal if they allowed to do exactly the same things. But this is not so within the Trinity. Equality is not sameness. And the different roles being exercised are how we end up with the God we know and love."
Well said! Possibly this is one of the THE foundational errors undermining today's societies?
This is my highest commendation: Miss R number 1 (not to be confused with Mrs R), aged 17, will get this as a present from me. She has been asking for something to read on the Trinity and so far I have given her Stuart Olyott's excellent little introduction. But she will find this more accessible, more practical, just as thorough (perhaps more so), more uplifting.
I also learnt (and this is key) that the way to spot gap year students is that they wear beads. Now I know….
And to finish – here's the Boss's commendation (not Bruce Springsteen, but Vaughan Roberts):
This is heart-warming, awe-inspiring teaching which will fill the mind and feed the soul. Deep truths are expounded with a light touch and down-to-earth applications. Here is a book that will not only help readers to understand more deeply the mystery of God the Holy Trinity, but also moved us to worship and honour him in daily life.
Sir Terry Leahy and I have previous. I won't bore you with the details but we were both appearing in a court case where each's evidence contradicted the other and I got it in the neck from the judge who told me he was more inclined to believe Sir Terry. Still, despite the past, I was interested to read the reviews of his new book Management in Ten Words in the weekend press (a slight biblical tone in the title?). You can't deny he's been at the forefront of one of the UK's most successful businesses. For the record (hope this doesn't spoil it for you) the words are truth, loyalty, courage, values, act, balance, simple, lean, compete, trust. What interests me though is what he does with some of those words, according to one review.
For example, and here I'm quoting from the review. "Number one is truth. The truth is not something you usually associate with retailing, says Sir Terry, seeking to shock us with his candour. But what does he want us to do with this truth? He wants us to confront it. The skilled manager does not ignore the truth. He sees it and responds to it."
Well, fair enough. But do you see what he is doing? If I told you the management word was truth you would automatically assume he meant telling the truth, not facing up to it. It's subtle but the context of the word has changed. Less subtle is chapter 3. Courage means "being certain that you are right." Now, that's just a new definition, isn't it? I don't think that's what courage means. Most online dictionaries get this right – the ability to confront fear or danger or uncertainty, etc.
I shall leave poor Sir Terry alone. What interests me more is that we are always redefining words. It's one reason that the preacher needs to be both careful with his own words and careful with God's words. Bible words mean what they meant. We must not impose 21st Century meanings onto them. And we must be careful that our own words are not open to the worst kind of misinterpretation. It's also why we should be thankful for modern Bible translations and the men and women who tirelessly work to keep them under revision.
When your to-do list overwhelms you
I'm fastidious about to do lists. That's partly because I cannot remember all the things I have to do and partly because I live in terror of forgetting to do things I've promised. Still, it does have its downsides, like this week when it gets longer than my arm and there is simply not enough time in the week to do everything. I've learnt to see that this arises because:
(1) I take on too much
(2) I procrastinate too much
(3) I don't delegate enough
Or, to be real, a deathly combination of all three. Mrs R had some good advice this morning when I was lamenting my failures and the length of the list. "Don't forget to make time to pray" she said. Right. End of post.